You’ve probably never heard of Birkelse, which is a small town in Denmark. It only has 715 people living there, and it can be found in Northern Jutland. Before 2017, even less people had heard of the small village, but then something extraordinary happened which was going to put the town and the people who lived there firmly on the map. It all started on a small family farm, the owners of whom had been living there for multiple generations…
Daniel Rom Kristiansen was 14 years old when this story happened, living on the family farm with his father, Klaus. The farm had been in the family for more than just the one generation, and for many years, the Kristiansen’s had been grazing cattle and planting crops on this land. Klaus remembered his own father, Daniel’s grandfather telling multiple stories about things which had happened in that unassuming place over the years. But stories are just stories… right?
An old story
One of those tales was about a plane which had crashed into their land, right there behind their own home. So when Daniel arrived home one day with history homework about World War Two, Klaus made the suggestion that Daniel should head out and look for it. “When Daniel was recently given homework about World War Two, I jokingly told him to go out and find the plane that is supposed to have crashed out in the field.”
A historical mission
But what started as a joke, became a historical mission! They took their metal detectors, and headed out into the fields to search. They were still half joking at this point, sure that they would find old tin cans, perhaps some metal plates or even a few coins. They had little to no idea of what they were about to unearth underneath their very own property. If they had, they might have been a little more frightened.
Something to be found
As they reached some wet ground, the metal detectors started to beep. The boggy earth was difficult to move through, but the detectors were making it very clear that there was something to be found in this space. The shovels they had brought with them could only get them so far, so they decided to borrow some farming equipment from neighbors. With an excavator found, they started to dig more seriously this time.
A startling find
By drilling between four and six feet downwards, the father and son team immediately realised there was something to be found here. After digging out everything they could manage, they had thousands of small pieces of metal debris, enough to help them suspect that they were looking at the broken remains of an aeroplane. But what proved it once and for all, was the actual engine of the plane itself.
Messerschmitt BF 190
The engine proved that this was a Messerschmitt BF 190 plane, which in it’s heyday would have looked something like this. It was a Nazi war plane, and this was clearly a plane which had crash landed during World War two, more than 70 years previously. It had lain hidden in this spot ever since, and only his grandfathers ‘stories’ had led them to even begin a half-hearted search for it. It was an incredible adventure, but it was only just beginning.
The pair also found Luftwaffe munitions, which included bullets that came from the machine guns. At this point, the father and his son were probably pretty excited by what they had found. But if they had stopped to think about this unearthed treasure, they would have realised what they were about to find if they kept digging any deeper. And maybe, just maybe they would have stopped digging at this point.
A gruesome discovery
Bones! That’s right, the pilot of this plane, or the remains of what was left of him were about seven feet below the earth. Various bone fragments, entire pieces of skeleton, as well as clothes and personal effects were found easily, as the pilot remained where he landed, in the cockpit of the aeroplane, dying as a result of the crash. The clothes that they found added another piece to the puzzle, a Nazi pilot uniform.
A Nazi Uniform
By looking into the pockets of the uniform, Klaus and Daniel learned more about this pilot. They found his wallet, emblazoned with the Nazi insignia as well as Nazi emblems, his German currency, and some rolling paper for a cigarette. You can even imagine this guy packing his wallet and his pockets before leaving on a mission. Little did he know that he would never make it to his destination.
Calling for help
Klaus remembers finding all of these items like it was yesterday. “And then we found some personal things – books, a wallet with money…either it was a little Bible or it was Mein Kampf – a book in his pocket. We didn’t touch it, we just put it in some bags.” At this point, once human remains had been uncovered, Daniel and his father knew they had to call the authorities and get some help. They didn’t want to damage anything or upset anyone.
A common fighter plane
Once the authorities came, they confirmed more about the identity of the aircraft, a Messerschmitt BF 190. This was a common fighter plane during the war, and was used all over Europe, as well as in Northern Africa. It was one of the most up to date and advanced fighting planes of the time, but that doesn’t mean that accidents don’t happen, exactly like the one that Klaus and Daniel had stumbled upon. But could they uncover any more information?
Examining the Scene
Both the Danish authorities, and excavators sent by world war two historians wanted to examine the scene and continue to dig to see what else they could find. Cars were sent out to the home of the Kristiansen’s, and their farm was taken over by experts and archaeologists, police, and even media outlets. After all, nothing usually happened in this sleepy down of Birkelse! Daniel was even given the day off school to watch them work!
Klaus remembers the moment he realised that things would be changing for them. “At first we were digging up a lot of dirt with metal fragments in it. Then we suddenly came across bones and pieces of clothes. It was like opening a book from yesterday.” Journalists, TV stations, even helicopters began arriving on their property. The Kristiansen’s had become celebrities overnight! They kept a close eye as more fragments from the plane were uncovered.
The trauma of war
You might be wondering why Klaus’s own father never reported anything about the incident, if he knew that a plane had crashed on their land during war time. According to Klaus, his father had told them that German occupying forced had removed the plane and the remains of the pilot. Clearly that hadn’t happened, but perhaps the trauma of war time made it difficult to remember exactly what had happened.
Just a joke
Either way, Klaus himself had never had any reason to suspect that anything was lying underneath the surface. When asked about it by the media, he stated that despite living there for 40 years, “We had never seen anything on the surface. Not a single bit of metal.” When he jokingly mentioned to Daniel that they should head out there with metal detectors, that was exactly what it was- a joke. He had never believed what they would find.
The next visitors to their farm were bomb disposal experts. As the plane had gone down with a lot of ammunition on board, they wanted to be sure that removing it wouldn’t cause any explosions or any ammunition to go off unexpectedly. They did not know if there were grenades or other explosives on board, and it was clearly better to be safe than sorry. The bomb disposal experts worked tirelessly to remove the plane without anyone getting hurt.
Historical Museum of North Jutland
Then, they had to decide where all the pieces of the plane and the historical fragments would go. The obvious choice was the Historical Museum of North Jutland. This already had plenty of historical artefacts from World War Two, and would be an obvious place to be able to keep all of the pieces of this fighter plane together, as well as tell the incredible story once all the elements had been understood.
Help from the Embassy
The German Embassy started to work to try to uncover who this pilot actually was. They used a German organization who have the archives of dead German soldiers, as well as tending to graves for soldiers without family. They were using the DNA from the body to try to match it to any documents which they had on file of missing soldiers and pilots. But would they be able to find his identity?
Then they spoke to Soeren Flensted, who specializes in German warplanes. His take on the whole exciting event was that the pilot in question must have been inexperienced, to have ended up in a crash like this one. Perhaps he was on a training mission, or early in his army career. He even made an educated guess. “There are records that someone in northern Denmark crashed into a mire in November 1944, and it was impossible to get him up… So that could be him.”
A popular aircraft
Flensted was anxious that they wouldn’t be able to identify this pilot, as his plane was such a popular option for many different kinds of mission during the war. It was a ground attack aircraft, a bomber escort, a fighter bomber, an all-weather aircraft, and even a reconnaissance aircraft. Without the pilots name, it would be impossible to solve this mystery once and for all. They were holding out a lot of hope on the Germans to give this dead pilot a name.
Head of Archaeology
Meanwhile, Torben Sarauw, the head of archaeology as well as the curator of the Historical Museum of North Jutland, was busy examining the parts of the aeroplane. He found twisted fuselage, as well as guns and ammunition. He began to separate items which had been clumped together, and managed to uncover some more important information about the pilot. But what did he find, and why was it so useful?
Some items he found did not help identify him, such as three unused condoms, or some Danish coins. But others helped to paint more of a picture as to who he was. For example, Torben found food stamps which came from a canteen in Aalborg, which was also the destination of a German pilot training base. Perhaps this would help narrow down the names of missing pilots, and help to put a name to this face?
Tracing this to Aalborg
Sarauw told the press that this was the very first plane from Germany to be found like this in Denmark, so it uncovered a lot of information. But first, you need to understand the history of Germany’s occupation in Denmark in the first place. Pieced together with the fact that he probably left the training base in Aalborg, this might help uncover what happened to the pilot and how he ended up there.
Researching the story
Daniel was likely doing all of this research himself, to complete was was undoubtedly going to be an A+ history project! Klaus joked that this was the most important thing of all. “Luckily my son has something to write about in his assignment now. He’s actually been given the day off school today so that he can watch the police and bomb disposal people working. It’s quite exciting for all of us.” But what was he uncovering with his own research?
Invasion of Denmark
The invasion of Denmark by Germany hit the record books for being one of the shortest military operations of the entire war. In fact, from start to finish, it took only six hours. The Germans crossed the Danish border in three ways, by sea, air and land. This all happened on April 9th 1940. It was part of the German’s plan to invade Norway, the goal being iron ore from Narvik. As part of this plan, the Germans invaded Denmark to seize control of the Aalbord airfield.
Provoking the Germans
Even though Denmark did know that the attack was likely, the Danish government decided not to fight back. By this point, the might of the German High Command was well understood, and they didn’t believe that provoking the Germans would be a good idea. So with no defensive strikes in place, the Germans took control of Denmark, remaining in power for over 4 years, until late 1944.
His fathers story
When Klaus talks about his father’s story, of the German plane which crashed onto their land, he has the details clearly in mind. His father said that it crashed in November 1994, which would have been only seven months before Denmark was liberated by the Allies and taken back from almost five years of Nazi occupation. Just think, if anyone had ever thought to look before, the entire wreckage was just there waiting for them.
Along with the wreckage, was the one piece of evidence which was going to give them the name of this pilot, lying dead on their farm for more than seventy years. And it was a watch! While they had the service records of this pilot, there was not enough clear writing to be able to read his name. But with the initials clearly inscribed on his watch, as well as a small signature on his calendar book, the mystery was finally solved.
The German authorities tracked the pilot’s information to Hans Wunderlich. He was a German pilot who was just 19 years old at the time of the crash, which was on October 10th 1944. (About a month out of Daniel’s grandfather’s recollections!) The watch, the food rations booklet, and the service records all helped them to identify his bones, and be certain that they had found the right identity for the remains.
A recovery attempt in vain
Born in 1925 in Neusorg, Bavaria, we do not know why or how Hans crashed, but there is some information about why he was never recovered back then in 1944. The reports explain that as he went down in a marshy field, the recovery was suspended as the mission would have been too hard and unlikely to be successful. The words in the report are “in vain.” As he would have died in the crash, recovering the body was not seen as a priority.
The plan was to contact any surviving family and have Hans buried in a Danish war cemetery. But when they went looking for the family of this long dead soldier, they were shocked to find that there really wasn’t anyone to contact. His parents had died only a decade previously in 2006, and his sister had died soon after that. As he was only 19, he had died without a wife or children. Imagine if the Kristiansen’s had gone searching just ten years earlier.
Laid to rest
Now the decision laid with the German War Graves Commission, to decide where Hans would be finally laid to rest. The commission handles the funerals of world war two soldiers, as well as making these kind of tough calls when there is no family available. They brought the remains back to Germany, and recorded his death at Holenbrunn City Hall. He was buried in Germany, with sadly no living relatives there at all.
Keeping interest alive
The Museum of Northern Jutland hopes that this discovery will keep people interested in history, and in particular WW2, coming to see the artefacts at the museum now that they are there. “We think it’s important to keep the findings together.” He has noticed that Danish schoolchildren are definitely more interested in the war since this event, and he is pleased that Wunderlich’s belongings and the other remains can be a part of that.
An unforgettable adventure
As for Daniel and Klaus, it was an adventure that they will likely never forget. Daniel himself can’t quite believe that his grandfather’s often told story actually was 100% true to life. “He was telling a lot of stories, my grandfather. Some of them were not true, and some of them were true – but this one was true. Maybe I should have listened to him a bit more when he was alive!” And the rest, as they say, is history.